TO LIGHT A CANDLE

Chapter One
In The Forest of Flowers

Kellen Tavadon could never have imagined fighting a battle so one-sided as this, but he no longer had the energy to spare for despair. In all of his daydreams of the glory of becoming a Knight-Mage, he had never expected to find himself in this position. Nor, in all of his nightmares, had he ever anticipated anything like this.

Up and around the circumference of the cairn he went, and as he did, the wind slowly increased again as he drew level with the surface of the plain. His legs ached so badly he thought that he would surely never be able to rise if he fell; his side burned, and Kellen hardly seemed to get any air at all from the panting gasps he pulled into his lungs. The wind itself was his enemy, tearing at him, blurring his vision, trying to rip him off the stairs or freeze him in place. It seemed to Kellen now as if the source of the wind was the obelisk itself, as if it blew out of the obelisk from someplace not of this world. The wind was colder even than before, and with each step Kellen took the force of it increased, until it was blowing so hard that he had to lean into it and press himself hard against the side of the cairn to keep from being blown off.

As if from a great distance, he could hear inhuman yelping and the sounds of battle. If he looked, he knew he would be able to see it as well, down over the plain.

But he refused to look. He could not afford to be distracted from his battle with the obelisk; it took all his concentration to keep his footing on the stairs against the ceaseless hammering of the increasingly-frigid wind. Kellen's teeth chattered uncontrollably; tears that now owed nothing to grief streamed from his eyes and froze along his cheeks and lashes. He gripped Idalia's keystone hard against his stomach and prayed that it would hold together as fervently as he had once hoped it might crack.

If he had been able to think, he would have been certain that his situation could not be any worse.

And then, as a further torment, grit began to pelt him, mixed with the wind, as if the force of the storm were starting to dissolve the cairn itself. Fine sand at first, that left him blinking and half-blind, but soon heavier sand that left his skin feeling raw, then good-sized pieces of gravel and small rocks that hammered his skin, leaving bruises that stung and ached, and even drawing blood. He could taste grit between his teeth, on his tongue, feel it in his nose, in his lungs, choking him. He pulled his undertunic up over his head. It was hard to breath through the heavy quilted leather, but as he heard the wind-driven sand hiss over its surface, Kellen was glad he'd buried his head in its folds. Better to be half-stifled than arriving at the top of the cairn blind. Slowly his tears washed his eyes clean.

He was even gladder to have done it when the sandstorm became heavier, quickly escalating from fine grit to stinging particles that left his exposed skin feeling raw, and good-sized pieces of gravel and small rocks that pelted his body punishingly. Not just bruises now; the sharper pain of laceration lanced across his exposed skin. At this rate, he'd be dodging boulders soon. And one direct hit from anything large and his quest would be over. And so the fate of Sentarshadeen, and perhaps of all of the Elves, would be sealed.

And he needed to protect the keystone as well as his eyes and lungs. Kellen quickly shoved the keystone up under his shirt, and turned toward the wall so it was protected by his body. It was as icy against his skin as it had once been warm against his hands. He ducked his head beneath his tunic, turning his face against the wall, and crept, crabwise and even more slowly, up the stairs. The sand made them slippery, and he knew Something was hoping he'd fall and break the fragile keystone.

As he'd feared, small stones were soon joined by larger stones, as the fury of the gale - or the intelligence behind it - tore off pieces of the mountain and flung them at Kellen. He groaned as fist-sized chunks of rock struck him - on the shoulders, the ribs, the leg, hammering against the bruises the shepherd's club had made. Only that morning? It seemed an eternity ago. At least the howling of the wind and the booming of the rocks against the stone shut out all sound of the battle below. If it was still going on. If all his friends weren't dead already. If Vestakia hadn't been taken, dragged off into a slavery and torture she feared more than death. Please, let that at least not have happened.

I won't look back, Kellen promised himself. Whatever happens, I won't look back.

He couldn't believe he was doing this. This wasn't where all of his dreams were supposed to lead him! Fighting a demon in real combat--that was what he was supposed to be doing, not crawling hand over hand up a rock wall! And it was so unfair for the enemy he faced to be throwing rocks at him -- as if hurricanes, monsters, and all the rest weren't enough!

Unfair - no, it wasn't so much that it was unfair. It was humiliating. The enemy did not care to waste its demon warriors on stopping him; he wasn't an Elven Knight, after all, he wasn't any sort of a real threat, and evidently it did not deem him worthy of such attention. Its actions seemed both arrogant and full of ennui, as if all this was the action of something that saw him as a mere nuisance, an insect.

Of course, there was always the equally crushing thought that he faced, not a dignified enemy that fought with solemn strategy, but a bored and impatient behemoth that had lost its temper and was flinging rocks at him like a child in a tantrum.

That might almost be bearable. At least it would mean that he had managed to make it angry.

No, the likeliest was that he meant so little, that he was so unimportant, so meager a threat, that the enemy deemed it sufficient to batter him with a few rocks, certain that he was so worthless, so lacking in courage, that he would turn tail and run.

That, as much as all the pain, the uncertainty, the grief and despair, nearly broke Kellen's spirit.

Only his anger at the insult saved him.

Anger is a weapon, as much as your sword.

"I'll show you!" he snarled through clenched teeth. And went on. Slowly, agonizingly slowly, blind, aching, terrified, but now, above all else, so enraged that the anger provided a new source of strength, he drove onward.

Then came the worst part--when the wind and sand and rocks began hitting him from all sides, and he knew that there was no more wall beside him. Kellen realized that must mean he was near the top of the cairn. Groping blindly, his head still muffled in his tunic, he slid his hand along the wall in front of his face, upward until he touched emptiness. The wind pushed at his fingertips with the force of a river in flood. If he tried to simply walk up to where the obelisk was, the wind would pluck him off and hurl him to the ground.

Very well. Then he would crawl.

Kellen got down on his hands and knees and crawled up the rest of the stairs, brushing the sand away carefully from each step before him. It caked on his abraded hands, and every time he wiped them clean on his tunic, one after the other, always keeping one hand wrapped tight around the keystone beneath his tunic, fresh blood welled up from a thousand tiny scratches. And the wind still blew, cold enough to leach all sensation from his flesh.

He reached a flat place, and crawled out onto it, pushing against the wind.

Suddenly, without warning, the wind stopped. The silence rang in his ears. He had never quite understood the term "deafening silence" before. Now he did. It loomed over him, its intangible weight crushing him beneath an avalanche of cold dread.

"Well, you make a fine sight," a man said from somewhere above him, sounding amused.

The voice was elusively familiar.

Kellen dragged his tunic down around his neck and stared, blinking, into the watery green light.

He was facing... himself?

Another Kellen stood on the other side of the obelisk, grinning down at him nastily. The point of the obelisk came just to his heart-level. This Kellen was sleek and manicured - no one would ever call his smooth brown curls unruly! - and dressed in the height of Armethaliehan finery, from his shining half-boots of tooled and gilded leather to his fur-lined half-cape and the pair of jeweled and embroidered silk gloves tucked negligently through his gleaming gilded belt. The cape and gloves were in House Tavadon colors, of course. No one would ever forget which Mageborn City House this young man belonged to, not for an instant.

Slowly, Kellen got to his feet, though his cramped and aching muscles protested. Instantly, Other-Kellen clapped his bare hands over the point of the obelisk, blocking Kellen's access to it.

"Think about what you're doing," Other-Kellen urged him. "Really think about it. Now, before it's too late. You've had a chance to taste freedom, and you've found it's a bitter wine. Only power can make it sweet, but you already know the responsibilities that power brings. Even the powerful aren't really free - everyone serves someone, or something. The only real freedom we have is of choosing our master, and most people don't get even that. But you can choose."

"I don't serve anyone!" Kellen said angrily.

"Oh? And you a Wildmage," Other-Kellen said mockingly. "I should think you would have learned better the moment you opened the Books."

Kellen snapped his mouth shut abruptly. If this was a fight, he'd just lost the first battle. He did serve the Wild Magic, and so far he'd done exactly what it told him to do, no matter what that was. How free did that make him?

"You've made some bad choices in the past," Other-Kellen continued smoothly. "Even you're willing to admit that. Wouldn't you like the chance to just undo them? To go back and start over, knowing what you know now? To make it right? You can have that. Erase the bad choices but keep the wisdom you've gained. Few people get that opportunity."

Other-Kellen smiled, and for the first time, Kellen could see his father's face mirrored in this stranger's that was his own. The sight shocked and distracted him, even in this moment and in this place. Assurance... competence... or just corruption?

No. Temptation -- there it was. Even if he'd never put it into just those words, wasn't it exactly what he himself had thought so many times of doing?

"You left Armethalieh because you rebelled against your father's plans for you, but you know better now, don't you? Arch-Mage Lycaelon only wants for you what he has always enjoyed himself! And that's not so bad, now, is it? What does it matter if it takes a bit of groveling and scraping, and a lot of boring make-work to get there? Think about how you used to live--and how you live now. The life of a High Mage has its compensations - and the High Mages were right, back when they walled themselves off in their city. They were right to want to build safeguards against the Prices and Bargains the Wild Magic required," his doppelganger said, his voice as silken and sweet as honey, reasonable and logical. Kellen himself had never sounded like that. "What's so wrong with trying to improve something? They still practice magic, and they do so without the open-ended Prices that the Wild Magic demands. They still give their citizens a good life - and if life in the Golden City is too restrictive, well, when you're Arch-Mage, Kellen, you'll be able to make all the changes you've dreamed of, and make the City an even better place to live, one where the citizens have choices."

That shocked Kellen so much that he almost dropped the keystone. Of all of the things he had imagined and fantasized about, that was never one that had occurred to him!

"And you can be Arch-Mage," the double said, persuasively. "You have the gift and the talent; your father isn't wrong about that! If everyone must serve, then choose your service. Serve the City. Go back now, beg your father's forgiveness - it won't be that hard; he needs you to shore up his own failing prestige. Things are not going well for him, back in the Golden City. He could use someone he could trust right now, and who better to trust than someone of his own blood? He'll be grateful when you turn up again, full of repentance! Give up the Wild Magic. That won't be hard, either, will it? Step back into the life you should have had, and work for the good of Armethalieh. You'll have everything you wanted. All you have to know is where to look for it. And you know how to do that now, don't you? You've learned. You've gained wisdom. Wouldn't it be a shame not to be able to apply it, to be able to give others the benefit of your experience? To help them? You'll be able to keep your memories, of course - what good is experience if you don't remember it? And you won't be wholly without resources. Or allies. Just think of all you can do for the City when you return. . . ."

Kellen stared in horrified fascination at his doppelganger. Was this really him? The person he could have been - or could still be? If Lycaelon had been able to create the perfect heir by magick- If, a year and more ago, someone had asked Kellen what he wanted to be, and he hadn't thought clearly enough-

To help them. Even against the Demons? If he did this, could he even turn the City to help the Elves, and forge a new Alliance as in the old days?  

But Jermayan would know what had happened --

Shalkan surely would --

"Your companions are already dead. You have no one to consider but yourself. No one will know what happened here but you. Isn't it time you did what you want, for a change? Here is your future, Kellen." His doppelganger leaned forward, his face wearing a mask of pleasantry, his voice eager, urging. "You have but to reach out and seize it. Power - glory - mastery - fame - everything you can imagine, even love, if that's what you think you want. Certainly the fathers of every healthy young mage-born girl in the city will be happy to present their daughters as your potential spouse. And the girls themselves, well, I've never heard of a girl yet that wasn't immediately attracted to a young man with the potential for power that you possess. It can all be yours. And you will receive nothing but praise for your actions."

Now Kellen looked away, down toward the plain below, but he could see nothing at all of the battle that might still be raging there. Everything below the top of the cairn was covered with a thick layer of yellow-green fog. It was as if the rest of the world had vanished. Quickly he looked back at his doppelganger, suspecting a trick, but Other-Kellen had not moved. His doppelganger smiled at Kellen sympathetically, as if guessing the direction of Kellen's thoughts.

"But if you go through with this foolish adventure that you have undertaken at the behest of others, your future will be set. If you think you have troubles now, you can't even begin to imagine what your life is going to be like afterward - assuming you don't die right here. Think of the Demons. They know your name, Kellen. The Queen and Prince of the Endarkened know who you are." The double's voice caressed the names. "They know all about you, and they'll find you wherever you go. You won't have an easy death, or a quick one. They love Wildmages. They love to play with them and their power. Torment -- oh, for them, it is the highest form of Art, and they have had millennia to perfect it. You won't die, but you will long for death with all of your being. For years, Kellen, for years...."

Other-Kellen shuddered in mock-sympathy, his eyes never leaving Kellen's face. Kellen trembled, remembering his nightmares, knowing they must have fallen far short of the truth.

"Oh, you might survive triggering the keystone. You might even manage to get back to Sentarshadeen alive, I'll grant you that. And I'm sure your friends the Elves will do their best for you. But it hasn't really been much of a best so far, has it? They couldn't even manage to save themselves without a Wildmage or two to help. And when it comes right down to it, they're going to take care of themselves and their families first once the trouble starts, aren't they? So it's just going to be you and Idalia, all alone with no one to help you, and how long do you think the two of you will survive? After all, you two are only humans, and blood is, as the saying goes, thicker than water. If anyone is protected, it will be other Elves, not a couple of barbaric, mayfly humans, who can't even manage a conversation without being rude and uncouth."

The doppelganger snickered, and Kellen flushed, remembering his stumbling attempts to converse with anyone in Sentarshadeen other than the child Sandalon.

"I wouldn't say we're friends, exactly, but I would say I'm the closest thing to a friend you've got. Right here. Right now. Think about it, Kellen. This is your last chance. After this, you have no choices left. Think. Use what you've learned. They've all tried to keep the truth from you - even Idalia - so you wouldn't know what the stakes are. Think how hard you've had to work to find out what little you have. Why is that? So you wouldn't know enough to make a fair choice," Other-Kellen said.

Fair, Kellen thought bitterly. Nothing about this is fair. Nothing had ever been fair and out in the open, from the moment he'd found the three Books in the Low Market, and hearing all his secret fears and unworthy hopes in the mouth of this manicured popinjay was the least fair thing of all.

He remembered Jermayan telling him about The Seven - how when they'd faced down the Endarkened army at the pass of Vel-al-Amion and first beaten them back, the Endarkened had tried to seduce them to the Dark.

As one of the Endarkened was trying to seduce him now. This, then, was their last line of defense, and the most compelling of all.

"Well..." Kellen said, walking closer and lifting the keystone in his hands as if he were about to hand it over. "I guess I really ought to be smart and do what you say."

The Other-Kellen smiled triumphantly and relaxed, certain of its victory.

"But I'm not going to!" Kellen shouted.

He brought the keystone down - hard - on the doppelganger's hands. It howled and recoiled as if it had been burned, jerking its hands back from the point of the obelisk.

And in that moment, it... changed.

The Other-Kellen was gone. In its place stood a Demon.

It - she! - towered over Kellen, her wings spread wide. He caught a confused glimpse of blood-red skin, of horns and claws, but she was barely there for an instant, for in the moment that the Demon had released her hold on the obelisk, Kellen slammed the keystone down over the tip of the stone.

The instant Idalia's keystone touched the obelisk, the Demon howled in fury and vanished, her cheated rage a whiplash across his senses. For a moment he was blind and deaf in a paroxysm of pain. He cringed, but kept his hands on the stone.

They had not counted on his experience with being lied to. And perhaps that was the greatest weapon Lycaelon Tavadon had given to him.

I know a lie when I hear it, you bastards! His father had lied to him so smoothly, so convincingly, and so often, that Kellen had learned every guise that a lie could wear, including the most seductive.

Kellen trembled all over, realizing in that moment how close the Demon had come to winning. But it hadn't.

Now it was up to him. Despite everything he had already gone through, the hardest part was still to come. Hardest--and yet, in its way, the easiest. All he had to do was surrender--surrender his will, surrender his power, and put it all in the service of a something far outside himself.

He took a deep breath and reached down into the keystone with his Wildmage-senses, touching the power waiting within. The power leaped toward him eagerly, but Kellen knew that he was not to be its destination. Gently he turned it toward the obelisk.

He felt the obelisk's resistance, and pushed harder, adding the last of his strength and all of his will to the keystone's power, forcing the link into being. It was like healing an unwilling subject, if such a thing were conceivable.

One by one, the obelisk's defenses gave way. Kellen felt the triggering force begin to rush through him and into the obelisk. He kept his palms pressed against the keystone's sides; without him to maintain the link, the spell would be broken before the Barrier was breached. And all of it - the journey, the others' sacrifice - would all have been for nothing.

Then, breakthrough.

And his body spasmed, convulsed, his mouth going open in a silent scream.

This was worse than anything he could have imagined. It was nearly impossible to keep his feet; he wouldn't have been able to if his muscles hadn't all locked at once, freezing him in place; head flung back, back arched. He felt as if he were being struck by bolt after bolt of lightning, a torrent of energy that somehow went on and on and on, searing its way through him.

His hands were burning. He stood the pain as long as he could in silence, but then he had to scream. Holding the keystone was like clutching red-hot metal fresh from the forge, and there was no respite, no mercy. He could smell the pork-like scent of his cooking flesh, could feel blood running down his wrists as blisters swelled up and burst, and then, in a thunderclap of agony, the fire was everywhere, coursing through his veins with every beat of his heart.

Kellen howled unashamedly, great wracking sobs of hopeless agony. And he held on. Perhaps it was stubbornness, but he had always been stubborn. And he would not give the Demons this victory.

Then came a single thought, emerging through the fire and the pain.

I'm going to die.

He realized at that moment that this was the price of the spell, the rest of the cost. It must be. A Wildmage's life. Idalia must have known when she created the spell that the price of casting it would be the life of the one who triggered it. His life. Kellen felt a flash of pride in his sister at keeping the painful secret so well.

But he would have to consent. No Wildmage could give up that which belonged to another - not without turning to the Dark.

She had known the price of the magic, but she could only have hoped he would pay it. Well, he wasn't going to let her down. He would be everything she had hoped. And if he had been an uncouth barbarian to the Elves of Sentarshadeen, at least he would be an uncouth barbarian whose name would live on in their legends forever.

If that's the price, he shouted silently to the Powers, Then I will pay it! I wish I didn't have to, but I swear I pay it willingly and without reservation!

But more than ever, having surrendered his life, he yearned to keep it. To see the sun again, to feel the gentle summer wind, to walk through the forest or drink a cup of morning tea. But all those things had their price, and so did keeping them. And some prices were too high to pay. The price of his life would be the destruction of all those things, soon or late. The price of keeping his life would be victory for the Endarkened.

No. Never.

My life for the destruction of the Barrier. A fair bargain. Done. Done!

Then the pain was too great for thought.

As if it were made of flesh, not stone, the obelisk began to take on the heat of the keystone. Beneath his hands, seen even through his closed eyelids, it glowed an unhealthy green. The ground started to tremble beneath Kellen's feet, and a low rumbling sound filled the air, growing louder, becoming a roar, then a wail.

Abruptly the obelisk began to swell, its stark lines distorting as if the malign power it contained was backing up inside it, filling it beyond its capacity. Its swelling carried him upwards; he collapsed against its surface, clinging to the keystone, and still it swelled. Now the stone was a baneful pus-yellow color, nearly spherical. Kellen lay upon its surface, unable to preserve the thought of anything beyond the need to maintain the link.

The whole cairn shook like a tree in a windstorm.

The wail rose to a scream. The toxic light flared lightning-bright.

And for Kellen, there was sudden darkness and a release from all pain.

#

Then, of course, there was a return to life, and pain. And since the latter meant that he still had the former, it was less unwelcome than it might have been. And through the pain, the faces of Vestakia and Jermayan--so they had survived!

It had all been worth it then. Only afterwards did it occur to him that the compounded trouble he had fallen back into might make him begin to regret that return to life....

#

It had taken them only a sennight to travel from Sentarshadeen - easternmost of the Nine Cities - into the heart of the Lost Lands to face the power of Shadow Mountain.

The return trip took a bit longer, though at least nobody was trying to kill them this time. That did not mean, however, that the journey was less trying. If anything, it was, except for the absence of combat, physically harder.

To begin with, it was raining - although rain, Kellen Tavadon reflected grimly, wearily, was a mild word to apply to the water that had been falling from the sky non-stop for the last moon-turn.

It was just a good thing that Elven armor didn't - couldn't - rust.

Jermayan, of course, didn't mind the rain at all. But the Elven Lands had been suffering under the effects of a spell-inflicted drought for almost a year, and its effects had nearly destroyed the entire land. Kellen had only spent a few days in Sentarshadeen before heading north toward the Barrier, and even what little he'd seen of the Elves' desperate attempts to save their city and the forest surrounding it had been enough to strike him dumb. How much more terrifying must it have been for an Elven Knight, one of the city's protectors, to watch everything he loved wither and die for sennight upon sennight, knowing there was nothing he could do about it?

No wonder Jermayan welcomed the rain that came now that the Barrier had been broken.

Vestakia didn't seem to mind the weather all that much either. But then, Vestakia had spent her entire life living nearly alone in a little shepherd's hut in the wildest part of the Lost Lands, with only a few goats for company. A little rain - or even a lot of rain - probably didn't bother her too much.

But it felt increasingly like torture to Kellen. For one thing, he still wasn't all that used to uncontrolled weather. He'd spent most of his young life living in the Mage-City of Armethalieh, where everything - including the weather - was governed by the rule of the High Mages. In Armethalieh, rain only fell between midnight and dawn, so that the inhabitants weren't inconvenienced by it. He'd never actually seen rain until he'd been Banished by the High Council--officially, for daring to question some of the Golden City's thousands of rules and regulations. Only he and his father knew the real reason. He'd been banished for his possession of the three Books of Wildmagery, the Book of Sun, the Book of Moon, and the Book of Stars.

Still, even since his banishment he hadn't seen that much uncontrolled weather, and even then he'd had the option to be in under a roof when it came. Now, well, there wasn't anything like a roof for leagues and leagues, probably. Even when they stopped to rest, they never really got out of the rain. The most they could manage was to drape some canvas over themselves, or, if they were lucky, find a dry spot, a half-cave, or shelter under a fallen tree or a pile of rocks.

To add to his misery, he was still suffering from the injuries he had gotten in his battle to break the Barrier-spell. It was small consolation to know that Jermayan and Vestakia had sustained their share of injuries, and he would be the first to admit that he could never have reached the spot without their help. But only a Wildmage could have triggered the charged Keystone whose stored power destroyed Shadow Mountain's spell, and as a consequence he had come off the worst, by far, of the three of them.

Though Jermayan had not said it in so many words, Kellen already knew that the backlash had nearly killed him. He'd been so sure that his life would be the price of the spell that awakening afterwards had been a shock. After all, every kind of magic required payment, and the first lesson the Wildmage learned was that each spell of the Wild Magic came with a cost, both in the personal energy of the caster, and, often, in the form of a task the Wildmage must perform.

But in this case, it seemed his willingness to sacrifice his life had been enough. Or perhaps, just perhaps, the cost had been his willingness to live and endure, for though Kellen had survived the triggering of the spell, he was still paying a princely fee in pain.

If you can call this living, he thought, silently, as he rode along behind the others in the direction of home. He had become so used to pain that now he could hardly remember a time when he had lived without it a constant presence. Except when he slept -- and that was only because Jermayan had some powerful narcotic in his kit that didn't so much allow Kellen to sleep as to knock him completely insensible between dark and dawn. It was pain that awoke him, and pain that was the last thing he felt at night.

His injuries had been severe enough that it had been a sennight before he'd been able to ride at all, and his hands were still so heavily bandaged that he couldn't possibly wear his armored gauntlets, much less hold a sword. Any protecting that was going to be done was going to have to be done by Jermayan, and maybe Shalkan, and possibly Vestakia; he was strictly along as baggage, now. At least this time they were heading into the Elven Lands, and even if there were still bandits or outlaws lurking in the hills, the rain had kept anyone who might be thinking about making trouble huddled safely by their own fireside.

Where Kellen wished he was, right now. The rain was only making him ache worse. And underneath it all was fear, fear he never openly expressed, but was with him, riding along with the pain. The fear of what was underneath those bandages.

He would much rather dwell on the minor misery of the rain.

His heavy hooded oiled-wool cloak was soaked through. His heavy silk surcoat was wet. The unending rain had managed to make it through both of those layers and even through the tiny joins and chinks in the delicately-jointed Elven armor that he wore, soaking the padding beneath.

It wasn't that he was cold - he wasn't, even with Winter coming on. But he'd never felt so soggy in his life.

He rested the heels of his hands - wrapped in goatskin mittens to keep the bandages dry, and medicated to the point where the pain was more of a dull nag - against the front of his saddle, gazing around himself at the transformed landscape. Everything looked so different now! On the outward trip, they'd been navigating mostly by his Wildmage intuition to find the direction of the Barrier; his sister Idalia, who was a much stronger Wildmage, hadn't been able to locate it by scrying, and until he and Jermayan had linked up with Vestakia, they'd had no way of sensing it directly. So for the first part of the trip, they'd been traveling mostly by guess... and through a far different countryside than this.

For the rain had changed everything about the landscape that had once been so parched and barren. There were lakes where none had been before, meadows had become impassable swamps, trickling streams had become rivers, and all the landmarks he'd memorized on the outward trip were gone. On their return passage, they'd had to rely on Jermayan's familiarity with the Elven lands and Valdien's and Shalkan's instincts to find them a route that wasn't underwater or under mud.

"Are we there yet?" he muttered under his breath.

"Sooner than you think," Shalkan answered.

Kellen sighed. He hadn't thought Shalkan would be able to hear him under the sound of the rain. But by now, he should know better than to underestimate the keenness of the unicorn's hearing.

"How long?" he asked.

"Less than an hour. We've already passed the first scouts from Sentarshadeen. They've probably gone back to warn the welcoming party to be ready to greet us." The unicorn's voice was bland, but Kellen's stomach clenched in a tight knot of tension. He'd lost all track of how long they'd been traveling, and hadn't had any idea they were so close. Now the aching of his body was joined by the clenching of his gut. They had gone out a party of four. They were returning a party of five. And one of the five--outwardly, at least--was not going to be welcomed with open arms by the Elves.

"Does he know?" Kellen asked. He nodded to where Jermayan rode on Valdien, with Vestakia - thoroughly bundled up, of course - sitting behind him on the destrier's saddle. At the end of a long tether, the cream-colored pack mule ambled along behind Valdien, every inch of her covered with the black mud splashed up from the road. At least once they were back in Sentarshadeen it would be someone else's job to try to get her - and Shalkan, and Valdien - clean.

"He saw them, I imagine," Shalkan said, without adding the obvious: that naturally Jermayan would recognize exactly where he was, even if Kellen didn't. And that Elven senses were much keener than Kellen's. Especially now, when most of Kellen's awareness was wrapped in pain.

Almost home - at least, as much home as Sentarshadeen was. Dry, out of the rain, and a chance to sleep in a proper bed again. And most of all, a proper Healer to deal with his hands and anything else that was wrong with him. Kellen tried to look forward to those things.

Unfortunately, there were a lot of things about their welcome home that he wasn't looking forward to. And unfortunately, he was not really certain that a Healer would be able to set his hands right again.

#

Even at the beginning of winter, the Elven valley bloomed. The silver sheen of the Unicorn Meadow had turned to deep emerald when the rains came, and the city had come back to life.

Released from their desperate hopeless task of attempting to irrigate the forest lands surrounding their canyon home, the Elves had resumed their patrols of the deep woods and the extended borders of their homeland, for now, more than ever, it was vitally necessary, with their ancient enemy roused to life once more. And only a short time ago, one of those scout-pairs - a unicorn and his rider - had brought word to Queen Ashaniel that Kellen and Jermayan had been sighted upon the road.

Idalia had been about to scry for news of them when the Queen's message was brought to her. She had immediately gone to the House of Leaf and Star, both to thank the Queen for the news and to hear more of it than the scouts had brought to her.

Though the House of Leaf and Star was - in every sense that humans understood the word - the palace of the King and Queen of the Elves, it was not even as grand as the house Idalia had grown up in back in Armethalieh. Elven buildings were not meant to be imposing, but to be suitable, and although the House of Leaf and Star was probably one of the largest structures in all the Elven Lands, it still managed to look welcoming and homelike. It was a low, deep-eaved house built of silvery wood and pale stone, and age and strength radiated from it as from an ancient living tree.

By the time she had crossed the long roofed portico, her cloak and wide-brimmed Mountain Trader hat had shed most of their burden of water, and her boots had dried themselves upon the intricate design of slatted wood with which the portico floor was inlaid - crafted for just that purpose, as all the works of the Elves managed to combine beauty and practicality with flawless ease.

She was not surprised to see the door open before she reached it.

"I see you, Idalia Wildmage," the Elven doorkeeper said politely.

"I see you, Sakathirin," Idalia answered with equal politeness. Elvenkind was both an ancient and a long-lived race, and except under extraordinary circumstances, its members were unfailingly courteous and unhurried. Part of the courtesy was the assumption that a person might not wish to be noticed; the greeting I see you was meant to convey acknowledgment of one's presence, with the implicit right being that one did not have to respond if one wished to be left alone. "I have come to share news with the Lady Ashaniel, if she would see me as well."

"The Lady Ashaniel awaits you with joy," Sakathirin said gravely. "Be welcome at our hearth." He stepped back to allow Idalia to enter.

The rain patterning down on the skylight echoed through the tall entry-hall, its music a counterpoint to the splashing of the fountain that once more bubbled and sang beneath it. Idalia smiled, seeing that reflecting pool was once again filled with fish, their living forms mirroring the mosaic they swam above, that of fish swimming in a river. She knew from seeing similar fountains in other Elven homes that when the living fish hung motionless in the water it was sometimes difficult to tell them from the mosaics on the bottom of the pool, so artful and lifelike were the copies. The Elves delighted in this form of shadowplay, combining living things with their copies so expertly that it was often hard for mere humans to tell where Nature ended and Elven artistry began.

By the time Sakathirin had disposed of her cloak and hat, one of Ashaniel's ladies in waiting had appeared to conduct Idalia to the Queen's day-room.

In Armethalieh, such a room would have been called a "solar", but that was hardly an appropriate word for this room today. The walls were made of glass - hundreds of tiny panes, all held together in a bronze latticework - and the room seemed to hang in space, surrounded by a lacework made of light and air.

And water.

Raindrops starred the palm-sized windows, and streaks of rain ran down the outside of the glass like a thousand miniature rivers. The effect might have been chilly, despite the warmth of the lamps and braziers that filled the room, save for the fact that the room's colors were so warm. The ceiling had been canopied in heavy velvet - not pink, which would only have been garish - but a deep warm taupe, rich as fur. The pillows and carpets picked up those colors and added more: deep violets, ember-orange, a dark clear blue shot through with threads of silver... autumn colors, and those of winter, concentrated and intensified, until they kindled the room.

The Queen herself was dressed in shades of amber, every hue from clear pale candle-flame yellow to the deep ruddy glow of a sunset's heart. Her hair was caught back in a net of gold and fire-opals, and she wore a collar of the same stones about her throat.

"Idalia," she said, smiling and setting aside her writing-desk as she indicated a place beside her on the low couch upon which she sat. "Come and sit beside me, and we will talk. Your brother and Jermayan will not reach the edge of the City for some time yet, and there is much to do in preparation. They seem well enough, so Imriban said," she added, answering the question Idalia could not, in politeness, ask. "Though Imriban said that the Wildmage rides as one lately injured."

Idalia came and seated herself, taking care that her damp buckskins didn't touch Ashaniel's elaborate velvet gown.

"It would be good to hear all of what Imriban had to say," she offered carefully.

Direct questions of any sort were the height of bad manners among the Elvenkind, and learning to speak in accordance with the dictates of Elven politeness was one of the hardest lessons for the humans who came to live among them to learn. The closest it was possible to get to asking a question was to announce your desire to know something, and hope your hearer took pity on you.

"Imriban said... ." Ashaniel paused, and for the first time seemed to be choosing her words with great care. "Imriban said that they do not travel alone."

"Not alone-" It was a struggle to keep from turning her words into a question, but Idalia managed. "It puzzles me to hear that," she finally said.

"It puzzles me as well," Ashaniel admitted. "The one who rides with them rides cloaked and hooded beyond all seeing. And it occurs to me to wish that perhaps Imriban had been less... impetuous."

And maybe stopped and spoken to them, instead of just tearing back to Sentarshadeen to bring the news that they were on the way. Idalia finished the Queen's unspoken thought silently. It was hard to imagine who Kellen and Jermayan could have run into on their quest, and why they'd bring whoever it was back to Sentarshadeen.

"I suppose we'll know soon enough," she offered reluctantly.

"Indeed," Ashaniel said with a sigh. "And yet... it will be well should we meet them as close upon the road as we may, so Andoreniel has said. Even now, a place is being prepared at the edge of the Flower Forest, where we may receive them in all honor."

#

"Looks like they couldn't wait to meet us," Shalkan said dryly, dipping his head to indicate the flash of yellow in the distance with his horn.

"What's that?" Kellen said superfluously.

Jermayan cleared his throat warningly before answering. "A pavilion."

Kellen took the hint. On the road, their manners had been free and easy - war protocol, Jermayan had called it. The Elven Knight had set aside the elaborate code of Elven formality; he'd asked Kellen direct questions, and Kellen had been allowed, even encouraged, to question Jermayan directly in return.

But they were back in Civilization now, and he guessed he'd have to get used to it all over again. It hardly seemed fair. He'd gone through so much -- and why must he be burdened with this stifling formality now, when it was all he could do to pretend that he was certain he would be all right?

Well, he'd better warn Vestakia.

He was trying to figure out the best way to phrase it, when Jermayan beat him to it.

"In Elven lands, except in time of war, or dire need, to question another directly is considered to be unmannerly. I do not say that this is good or bad, merely that this is our custom, and, living as we do, such long lives and keeping to ourselves for the most part, perhaps we are fonder of our customs than we ought to be," Jermayan observed, as if speaking to Valdien. "Perhaps it is a failing in us. Perhaps it is merely that when one lives as long as an Elf, custom becomes habit, and habit is often so difficult to break that one gives over the attempt."

Kellen heard Vestakia's muffled snort of nervous laughter. "I don't think I'm going to be asking anyone any questions any time soon, Jermayan. I'll count myself lucky if they don't fill me full of arrows on sight."

"That they will not," Jermayan said, his voice filled with grim promise now.

As they rode closer, Kellen could see the yellow pavilion more clearly.

It was rectangular, and quite large - large enough for them to ride right inside, as Kellen suspected they were meant to. Colored pennants flew from the centerpost and from all four corners - and whether from the artfulness of their construction, or from a touch of the "small magics" the Elves commanded, they did fly, and were not simply sodden rain-soaked rags wrapped around the gilded tentposts. The tent was trimmed in scarlet, and the tentropes that held it firm against the buffeting winds were scarlet as well.

In the grey gloom of the day, the lamps hung inside the walls of yellow silk made it glow like the lanterns the Elves hung outside their homes at dusk, casting shadows of tables and moving bodies against the fabric.

As they came closer, a flap in the near side of the pavilion began to rise. Kellen saw two Elves walk it out and peg it into place with tall gilded poles, so that it formed a sort of canopy-entrance. Now he could see into the pavilion, and see that there was some kind of flooring as well. Trust the Elves to do everything... thoroughly.

They rode forward, into the tent.

The sudden cessation of the rain drumming on his head felt like a release from a mind-numbing torture. Kellen glanced quickly around as he kicked his feet free of Shalkan's stirrups and swung his leg over the back of the saddle. It was awkward not being able to use his hands, but they were so thoroughly swathed in numbing salve and layers of bandages that he could barely feel them at all, which was probably just as well. He suspected that Jermayan had used up all of the salve this morning, knowing that they would be back to a real Healer today.

Idalia was there, and it looked like all the cream of the nobility had turned out to meet them as well - both Ashaniel and Andoreniel were present, along with several of their counselors, and-

"Kellen!"

He'd barely steadied himself on his feet when a small bundle of energy detached himself from his nurse's skirts and ran forward, flinging his arms about Kellen's waist.

"You came back! I told them all you'd come back!" Sandalon said defiantly.

"Of course I came back," Kellen said, patting the young Elven prince's back awkwardly with one of his goatskin mitts. "And I brought Jermayan back, too."

"He's got someone with him," Sandalon said, with a young child's directness.

Kellen turned, to see that Jermayan had dismounted from Valdien, and was lifting Vestakia down from the saddle. As he did, her hooded cloak fell back, and her face was exposed.

She grabbed for the hood, but it was too late. Everyone there had seen.

"A Demon! Jermayan brings a Demon here!" Tyendimarquen gasped. All around him, the pavilion was filled with frightened whispers as the Elves drew back.

Lairamo rushed forward and grabbed Sandalon, snatching the boy up into her arms and hurrying back behind Andoreniel and Ashaniel.

"Jermayan, you will explain yourself." Andoreniel demanded, his voice harsh.

Before he answered, Jermayan made sure that Vestakia was steady on her feet - and then, very deliberately, drew the hood of the cloak back so that all could see her face.

Her skin was the rosy-red of ripe cherries; her short curly hair a darker shade of the same red, and her ears were as pointed as an Elf's. Pale gold horns sprouted from just above her slanting eyebrows and curved back over her head. Her eyes were the same yellow-gold as a cat's, with the same narrow slitted pupils. All these things, everyone knew, were the marks of the Endarkened, the evil race that was the enemy to all that lived and walked in sunlight. But despite her appearance, Vestakia was no Demon. And had anyone bothered to look past the mask of her face, they would have seen her expression--frightened, pleading, open, and desperately hoping for some kind of acceptance.

"Lord Andoreniel, Lady Ashaniel, I bring before you Vestakia, an ally, without whose help the Barrier would not have fallen," he said evenly, turning to face the other Elves. "She is without Taint, a fellow-victim of the Endarkened, and I have promised her refuge here."

Shalkan took a step backward, toward Vestakia. Knowing what was expected of her, Vestakia placed a hand on his neck, her scarlet fingers sinking into his soft silvery fur. At this, the murmurings from the gathered Elves broke out anew. Everyone knew that the touch of a unicorn was death to Demonkind. If Vestakia were truly what she seemed, she should not be able to touch Shalkan.

But it wasn't enough. Andoreniel was shaking his head.

"No. You have promised that which you cannot fulfill, Jermayan son of Malkirinath. She will not enter the city."

"Then we're leaving."

For a moment Kellen wondered who'd spoken, then realized it was himself. But the words felt right. The decision felt right. And -- all right, he needed a Healer, but surely Idalia would follow them and fix him, even if they left. Surely --

He glanced at Shalkan.

"I'm with you," the unicorn said.

"And I," Jermayan said firmly.

"We won't stay where all of us aren't wanted," Kellen said, locking eyes with Andoreniel. "Without Vestakia's help, the Barrier would still be standing. She's the one who found it for us. She - and Jermayan, and Shalkan - protected me while I destroyed it. No matter what she looks like, she isn't a Demon. She's as human as I am. So-"

"There's a simple way to solve all of this."

Idalia stepped forward, into the open space between the new arrivals and the Elves of Sentarshadeen.

"If you won't take the word of an Elven Knight, a unicorn, and a... Knight-Mage... for the fact that Vestakia bears no Demon taint, will you take my word? There are simple tests I can perform, right here in the Flower Forest, to determine beyond a shadow of a doubt whether she can bring any harm to Sentarshadeen, if you will trust me and accept my judgment in this matter," Idalia announced matter-of-factly.

Kellen felt a wave of relief wash over him, and saw the tension ease in Andoreniel's face as well.

"Of course we will trust you, Idalia," Andoreniel said, bowing slightly. "We are in your debt."

Andoreniel might feel that way, but Kellen doubted everyone there shared his feelings. Elven expressions were notoriously difficult for mere humans to decipher, but the tension in the pavilion was thick enough to cut with a sword.

"And you?" Idalia went on, turning to Kellen and Jermayan. "Will you abide by my judgment as well?"

"I have no doubt of what you will find, Wildmage," Jermayan said austerely.

"Well, I, uh... yeah," Kellen said. He knew Idalia wouldn't lie, and he knew Vestakia wasn't Demon-tainted. So how could she be a danger to Sentarshadeen?

"Go with her, child," Jermayan said softly to Vestakia. "She will do you no harm."

#

This was not the grand reunion she had envisioned between herself and Jermayan, Idalia thought with a flash of irritation, as she settled her hat more firmly upon her head and led Vestakia out of the pavilion and into the rain once more.

Trust Kellen to manage to work a few surprises into a simple homecoming.

He was thinner than he'd been when he'd left. There were shadows and hollows in his face that hadn't been there even a scant few sennights before. And he'd found his way into his magic - his own magic.

A Knight-Mage. The rarest kind of Wildmage, only appearing in a time of direst need. If they'd needed any more proof that they were all in deep trouble, Kellen's manifestation of Knight-Mage powers should provide it. But despite that, she found it in her heart to be happy for him, because for the first time since her little brother had been dropped back on her doorstep through the auspices of an Outlaw Hunt, she sensed that Kellen was truly content. At last Kellen had a real sense of his place in the world, of who he was and what his purpose was.

It was just too bad it was so very dangerous... .

She and Vestakia reached the edge of the Flower Forest, and Idalia led Vestakia inside. The force of the rain was muted almost at once, to a gentle patterning on the dense canopy of leaves.

Though it was late autumn, the Flower Forest was in full leaf, for many of the trees that grew here lived nowhere else in the world since the Great War, and paid little heed to the turning of the seasons. Thick moss cushioned the ground beneath their feet, and the air was appreciably warmer than it had been outside, filled with the spicy scent of the trees and the rich fragrance of their flowers.

"It's so beautiful," Vestakia breathed in wonder, staring about herself in awe. "I never... I was raised in the Wild Hills, you see. I saw forests when we rode south, and Kellen said that there were even larger forests further south, but. . ."

"Well, nothing could really prepare you for the Flower Forest," Idalia said kindly. "There isn't really anything anywhere like an Elven Forest... except maybe another Elven Forest."

Vestakia giggled nervously. "Are there many of those?"

"Well, there are nine Elven Cities, so there are probably at least nine," Idalia said gravely. "I've only seen two of the Elven Cities - counting this one - so I can't say for sure."

"It must be wonderful to be able to travel and see things," Vestakia said, sounding very young. Idalia wondered just how old she was. It was hard to tell, given the girl's rather exotic appearance, but she didn't seem to be much older than Kellen was.

They stopped in a little clearing, where the rain had made a small pool. Tiny white and purple flowers starred the deep green moss about its verge.

"We didn't actually have to come all the way in here, Idalia said, "but I thought you'd like a little privacy. Elves can be rather daunting when you meet a lot of them for the first time. Although you and Jermayan seem to get on well enough."

"Oh." Abruptly recalled to the reason they'd come to the forest, Vestakia regarded Idalia nervously with wide golden eyes.

Idalia reached into her bag and pulled out a small flask, offering it to the girl. "Here. Have a drink. It's just brandy and hard cider. My name's Idalia, by the way, if you didn't catch it back there in the tent. I'm Kellen's sister."

"Yes," Vestakia said, unstoppering the flask and drinking gratefully before returning it to Idalia. "He told me about you - a little. You're a Wildmage. My mother was a Wildmage, too."

Idalia's eyes widened a little at that, but she said nothing. So Vestakia's mother was a Wildmage, was she? Even more reason for Kellen and Jermayan to trust her.

"And how did you come to find my brother?" Idalia asked. She drank in turn, and as she slipped the flask back into her bag, she closed her fingers about a charged keystone.

Show me truth, she commanded.

"Oh, I didn't find Kellen," Vestakia said simply. "He found me. He rescued me from a bandit who was stealing my goats - and then I went with him and Jermayan to the Barrier, just as they said. They never would have found it without me," she added proudly.

All at once her shoulders seemed to droop with more than weariness.

"Jermayan told me his people would accept me here. But... I do not think they will. No one will, when I look the way I do!"

The keystone spell had told Idalia nothing, which was in itself an answer. The truth was already here for her to see.

"They're afraid," Idalia said neutrally. "But tell me the rest - if you've known my brother for any length of time at all, you'll know he's miserably bad at telling a story, and if I wait to hear the rest of your tale from him I might very well wait forever!"

It took very little prodding to get the rest of Vestakia's story out of her, of how her mother, a Wildmage, had been seduced unawares by the Prince of Shadow Mountain; how discovering that she was pregnant with a half-Demon child, she called upon the Wild Magic to help her... and been offered a choice.

The unborn child could be completely hers in spirit, and its Demon-father's in body; or its father's in spirit, yet human in body. Vestakia's mother had made the harder choice; Vestakia had a human spirit, but a Demon's body. To keep her unborn child from being slain at birth, Vestakia's mother had fled with her sister deep into the Lost Lands, where Vestakia had been born. There Vestakia had lived alone after both women had died, until Kellen had found and rescued her.

Her Demon-father, of course, continued to hunt for her, but Vestakia had one great gift that kept her safe, though it came at a price. She could sense the presence of Demons, because they made her ill. The closer they were, the greater her distress, and she learned quickly to hide whenever she felt a hint of their presence.

"And then I found - when Kellen asked me to try - that my gift worked just the same way with the Demon magic, if the spell is strong enough. So we found the Barrier," Vestakia said, her voice a mixture of triumph and remembered horror. "Jermayan saved my life there. And Kellen... Kellen saved all of us," she said softly.

#

There was a moment of awkward silence after Idalia and Vestakia left, and Kellen wasn't quite sure what to do next. At least he was sure that everything was going to turn out all right. Of course Idalia would find that there was nothing wrong with Vestakia, and they could all stay. Of course. Idalia could do anything she set her mind to.

And if he had to - well, wait until Jermayan told them the whole story of destroying the Barrier. Elven custom would force them into such overwhelming obligation to him that they would probably do anything he asked of them. For once, the intricate dance of Elven custom would work in his favor, for by the time Vestakia got enough accustomed to the Elves that she would be able to tell when welcome was forced and when it was not, it would be too late, for they would have discovered for themselves just how worthy of their trust she was, and the welcome would be real.

Jermayan settled the matter, removing his cloak and handing it to a servant who seemed to appear out of nowhere. Another arrived to take his sword and shield, then Jermayan removed his helmet and gauntlets, handing them off in turn before moving to Kellen's side.

It was a little embarrassing - okay, a lot embarrassing - to have to just stand there while Jermayan removed his cloak, helmet, shield, and sword for him, but Kellen couldn't really do any of those things for himself with his hands in the goatskin mitts. And he knew that only nervous tension was keeping him on his feet now.

"Come and sit," Jermayan said softly, taking him by the elbow.

When they stepped forward, the waiting Elves settled gracefully into their places, just as if they'd rehearsed every motion for years. There was a long table draped in heavy damask set along the right side of the pavilion - the left side apparently being reserved for the comfort of the animals - with simple wooden chairs clustered around it.

"You must be weary after your long journey," Ashaniel said, when they had seated themselves.

Looking across the pavilion, Kellen could see that servants - if there were servants among the Elves, something he still wasn't completely sure of - were unsaddling Valdien and removing Lily's packsaddle, and even helping Shalkan off with his armor and saddle. That wouldn't make it easy for them to leave in a hurry, if they had to, but Elves did not hurry. Even if they were angry, Kellen supposed.

"It was a journey I did not think we would live to complete," Jermayan answered somberly. "But Leaf and Star favored us, and brought us safely home again."

"And you, Knight-Mage. I trust that you also fare well," Ashaniel said, pouring cups of wine with her own hands and setting one in front of each of them.

"Well enough, Lady Ashaniel," Kellen said, though "well" was nothing like what he felt. Elven custom, Elven courtesy; he was surrounded by them, and pulled along as if by a strong current he could not hope to swim against. He pulled the goatskin mitts off and carefully set them in his lap before reaching for the cup with both hands. It was awkward, but he managed. His hands were still numb, but now that he wasn't soaked to the bone, some of those aches were coming back, and he was beginning to long for something to take the edge off, at least. "I do wish things weren't quite so... damp... though," he said ruefully. He took a sip of the wine. It would probably help.

"Idalia says that soon the rain will turn to snow," Ashaniel said, smiling, "which will not be quite as - damp. And by the spring the weather will have returned to its accustomed ways. It gladdens my heart that you have returned to see our city as it should be seen - and soon you will be healed of the hurts you have taken in our service."

Kellen glanced down at his hands. Only the very tips of his fingers were visible in the thick cocoon of bandage, and Vestakia and Jermayan had made sure he never got a good look at them on the infrequent occasions they changed the bandages. He wondered just how badly his hands had been burned, back there at the Obelisk. Very badly, if the pain he felt whenever the salve wore off was any indication. So badly his mind itself flinched away from thinking about it.

"I'm certain that is so," he said politely. Weariness as well as aching had begun to set in. It was hard, very hard, to sit here making polite conversation when what he wanted was to down another of those pain-killing potions, soak in a hot bath, then sleep for, oh, a year or so....

Shalkan came wandering over, and stuck his head over Kellen's shoulder. "Those little iced cakes look delicious," he said pointedly. The unicorn had a notorious sweet-tooth, one that it indulged at every opportunity. This time, however, he was going to have to wait. Kellen couldn't manage anything as small as a cake with his bandaged hands, and everyone else was too busy making polite noises at each other while they listened for Idalia's return to favor him with a treat.

"If the snow is to be heavy this year, then the Winter Running Dance should be exceptionally fine," Jermayan observed.

All this politeness was enough to make Kellen want to scream. Except that he hadn't enough energy to do more than sit there, look solemn, and nod. Even his nervous energy was beginning to flag.

"Indeed it should," Ainalundore said, from her position behind the Queen. From her tone, the Councilor greeted the introduction of such an innocuous subject with great relief.

To Kellen's faint disbelief, the Elves, Jermayan included, embarked upon a lively discussion of forthcoming entertainments to be held in Sentarshadeen - just as if the threat of Shadow Mountain wasn't still hanging over all of their heads. Just as if they weren't all dying for Idalia and Vestakia to come back. Just as if they were totally oblivious to the fact that Kellen himself was about to fall over from exhaustion.

"Cake," said Shalkan, "Is very nice. One could spear a cake with a fork, if one was so inclined, and place it on a saucer, and I could eat it."

Shameless. But it made him smile, and he did exactly what Shalkan wanted, now that he knew how he could manage to maneuver things. And out of politeness, he ate a cake himself, and discovered that the sugary thing gave him a little more energy. He sat and listened, carefully feeding Shalkan most of the plate of little iced cakes - and taking one or two for himself - as he finished his cup of wine. The wine did help; he would have liked more, but he was afraid in his current state he could slip from pleasantly numb to clearly intoxicated with very little warning, and that would probably horrify the Elves. Sandalon was still safe in Lairamo's clutches, somewhere out of sight at the back of the pavilion.

What was taking Idalia so long? Surely she just had to look at Vestakia to know that she was Good?

But there was no point in starting an argument here and now, particularly one Kellen was pretty sure he'd already won. Andoreniel and Ashaniel had promised to abide by whatever Idalia said, and their word was Law here.

"They're coming." Shalkan's breath tickled Kellen's ear.

Kellen glanced up. A few moments later, Idalia and Vestakia appeared in the doorway of the pavilion.

All conversation stopped.

Idalia approached the table with Vestakia, her arm around the girl's shoulders. Kellen had the feeling that without that support, Vestakia might have run.

"I have searched thoroughly with the Wild Magic," Idalia said without preamble. "Vestakia is not one of the Endarkened, nor does she bear Demon-taint."

Jermayan half-rose from his seat. Idalia held up her free hand, indicating that she had more to say.

"Yet, by her heritage, the Endarkened do have a kind of link to her. They can affect her physically by sympathetic magic, though she will sense anything they attempt, through the gift passed to her by her Wildmage mother. And for this reason, anyone who has been in intimate contact with her is similarly at risk."

Here Idalia broke off, eyeing Kellen sharply. She didn't have to say what he knew perfectly well: if Shalkan hadn't demanded a vow of celibacy and chastity from him in exchange for his aid in helping Kellen escape from Armethalieh, they might all be in very deep trouble right now.

"But the bad is balanced - and exceeded - by the good. By her gift at locating Demons and piercing their illusions, Vestakia can aid us to track the Endarkened, just as she found the Shadow Keystone for Kellen. Though her range is not great, nor can she see into the future, with her aid, should she choose to give it, we can know when something is just an accident and when it's the work of the Endarkened. And if there are Demons around, however disguised, Vestakia will know."

There was a long pause, while Andoreniel weighed Idalia's words. "This is a great gift," he said at last, getting to his feet. "Will you use your power for the good of the Nine Cities, Vestakia?"

"Yes," Vestakia said, her voice very soft. "Yes, please. It would be my honor to help you, however I can. How could anyone who has any sort of gift that could be used to oppose such Evil not do likewise?"

"Then be welcome in Sentarshadeen," Andoreniel said gravely. "Jermayan and Abrinath will see you to your hearth."

That seemed to settle it. No matter who had doubts about this -- and there were probably plenty who did -- there could be no arguing with the King. At least, not in public.

And in private -- well, that didn't matter. Not in the least. Vestakia would never hear of it. And sooner or later, everyone would know in their hearts just what kind of a person she was. Kellen felt almost dizzy with relief, and was very glad he hadn't drunk that second cup of wine.

Jermayan and Abrinath weren't the only ones leaving with Vestakia. Quite a number of those present made preparations to leave as well, including a couple of grooms leading Valdien and Lily away, presumably to their stables. Kellen watched, fascinated, as they unfurled large parasols at the door of the pavilion - only, unlike the ones he'd seen in Armethalieh, these were apparently designed to keep off rain, not sun.

"You'll be fine," Kellen told Vestakia, under the cover of the preparations for her departure. "You'll like it here. I'll see you soon."

"Do you promise?" Vestakia asked, sounding a little desperate.

"I promise," Kellen said. "Ah, they'll be giving you your own little house, by the way, one of the guest-houses. Just be sure to invite Jermayan to come inside when you get there. I don't think he can come in otherwise."

Vestakia smiled, a fleeting nervous smile. "I'll remember," she said.

And then Jermayan offered her his arm, and the two of them walked away.

Kellen glanced back at Idalia, to see her watching the two of them go. The expression on her face caught him by surprise.

Something's changed here.

When they'd left, Idalia had been holding Jermayan at arm's length. Kellen knew that she loved Jermayan as much as he loved her, but the fact that Elves bonded once, and for life, and that Idalia was inevitably going to die centuries before Jermayan did, had made her refuse to acknowledge that love, hoping that Jermayan would find someone else.

But now Idalia's attitude seemed to have changed, if the expression on her face was any indication.

It isn't any of my business, whatever she's decided, Kellen told himself firmly. He got to his feet, glancing from Shalkan to Idalia uncertainly. He wasn't quite certain what to do now. And then, he started to sway, just a little, as exhaustion caught him by surprise.

"Oh, no, brother mine," Idalia said firmly. "You're not going anywhere until I see what's under those bandages."

Kellen stared around in alarm. Here? Now?

"I'd take you home first, but if it's something I need to call in extra help for, I'd just have to bring you back through the city again. Might as well deal with it here," Idalia said, leaning close and speaking softly, for Kellen's ears alone.

Ashaniel gathered up most of the remaining courtiers - and all of the women - and prepared to leave. Andoreniel and Morusil stayed, along with one or two others whose names Kellen didn't know.

"We look forward to celebrating your triumph before all Sentarshadeen once you are properly healed and rested, Kellen Tavadon," she said gravely.

"Thank you," Kellen said simply. This didn't seem like the time to complain that he hated parties, somehow.

Ashaniel turned and swept away, reaching out to take Sandalon's hand in hers. The young Elven Prince was gazing back at Kellen forlornly.

"I'll see you again soon," Kellen called to the child, and saw Sandalon's face light up with pleasure. Then the Queen and her court were gone, and two attendants were closing the pavilion awning behind them.

"Why don't we get you out of that armor?" Idalia said pragmatically, tucking a hand under his elbow and raising him to his feet. "Better now than later."

As deftly as if she'd done this a hundred times - and Kellen didn't know she hadn't - she unbelted his surcoat and lifted it off, then pulled out the locking-pins that held the armored collar in place and slipped it free, then lifted off the armored breast-and-backplate. Next came the multi-jointed armored sleeves, then the boots, then the leggings, then Kellen stood wearing nothing more than the thin quilted leather undersuit that went beneath the Elven armor.

It was damp from the rain, and had shiny worn scars on its surface where the armor had rubbed it.

Kellen felt peculiarly light and unfinished without his armor. In the short time he'd been wearing it - it had been less than two moonturns since he'd donned it for the first time - it had grown to be an extension of his self, as much as his sword was.

One of the attendants handed Idalia a thick belted robe - in the same shade of soft green as Kellen's surcoat - and she helped him into it and tied the sash. Heavy soft over-the-knee boots of green-dyed sheepskin, woolly side in, completed the outfit. The Elves did nothing by halves.

"Comfy now?" Idalia asked.

"So far," Kellen said cautiously.

Idalia snorted eloquently, and opened a large box that someone had placed on the table while Kellen hadn't been paying attention. The box was large but not deep - though still too big for one person to carry comfortably - and made of a satiny golden wood, so beautifully crafted that Kellen couldn't make out where the pieces were joined. When Idalia opened it, Kellen could see that it was lined in padded leather, and filled with small glass flasks. Idalia inspected the contents critically for a moment before choosing one.

The liquid inside was a lurid violet color. She picked up the goblet Kellen had used before and poured a generous portion of the violet liquid into it - it was thick and syrupy - before filling the cup the rest of the way with wine.

She lifted the cup to his lips. "Drink it all, as fast as you can," she ordered.

"I suppose it tastes terrible," Kellen said resignedly, having some experience with healing potions.

"Not this one," Idalia said, sounding amused. "But it needs to start working before I can start working."

Steadying the cup with his bandaged hands, Kellen complied. She'd been right; it didn't taste that bad - particularly in comparison with other potions he'd had to drink - but the violet syrup gave the wine an odd sweetish undertaste that he didn't actually care for, like eating candied flowers.

Idalia took the cup back and set it carefully on the table, then reached for his hand. Reflexively, Kellen drew back.

"I have to see what's under there," Idalia said gently. "It won't hurt. Not once what I put in the wine takes effect anyway. Tell me what happened."

"I burned them," Kellen said simply. He knew he ought to tell her more, but somehow he really couldn't bring himself to talk about what had happened at the top of the cairn. Not to Jermayan. Not to Shalkan. Not to anyone. "It was the keystone," he finally added reluctantly.

"Do they hurt now?" Idalia asked, as impersonal as any physician.

"No. I can't even feel them. Jermayan had some kind of salve in his pack."

"Night's Daughter," Shalkan supplied. "Mixed with All-Heal."

"Well." Idalia seemed surprised, and Kellen wondered what 'Night's Daughter' was. "Just as well he came prepared for every occasion."

"And he gave me something horrible and brown to drink every night so I could sleep," Kellen added. "It tasted like moldy hay."

Idalia raised her eyebrow. Evidently she recognized what it was without Shalkan telling her. "It's just as well you came back to us so soon, then."

She knelt in front of him and unwrapped his hands slowly, alternating hands so that both would be exposed at the same time. Shalkan stood close, his cheek nearly touching Kellen's. Kellen could tell that whatever was in the wine was starting to work. He felt sleepy, and it was hard to concentrate. As the outer layers of bandage came away, he could see the inner layers, sticky and glistening with greenish ointment.

And the more layers Idalia peeled away, the more Kellen could see that his hands looked wrong.

They just looked wrong.

Jermayan and Vestakia had never let him watch when they tended his dressings on the trail. He'd gone along with it then. He didn't remember why just now, but he had. Maybe he'd been asleep when they'd done it. Maybe it was that brown stuff.

But he wasn't asleep now.

"Don't look," Shalkan suggested, as Idalia lifted away the last layer of bandage, but Kellen couldn't manage to take that good advice.

He looked. And wished he hadn't.

His hands were warped and charred, caricatures of themselves. All the flesh was burned away from the palms, and Kellen thought he could see bone showing. Toward the edges of the burn, puffy moist colorless flesh hung in sloughing rags. His fingers were crooked into claws, the tendons pulled tight by the burns. He tried to flex his fingers and couldn't. There was only pain - dull and distant, but there.

He made a strangled sound, and would have risen from his seat if not for Andoreniel's hands on his shoulders, pressing him firmly into his seat. Even through the effects of the draught Idalia had given him, Kellen could feel a rising tide of panic.

I'll never hold a sword again!

Idalia made a hissing sound of dismay, and somehow that turned Kellen's panic into anger.

"Well, what did you expect?" he said harshly, struggling with his feelings. He'd known he was burned. He'd known the burns were bad - very bad. But to see them... !

"I expected you to die," Idalia said, all the grief she hadn't shown before thick in her voice. "Oh, little brother, I'm so glad you came back alive!" She put her hand over his arm - above the burns - and squeezed gently, then sat back, looking over his shoulder.

"Kellen. Don't look at your hands. Look at me," Shalkan demanded. "Now."

With a great effort, Kellen pulled his gaze away from his hands and met Shalkan's gaze. The unicorn had beautiful eyes - deep green, and fringed by the longest silver lashes Kellen had ever seen.

"It will be all right," the unicorn said softly. "You've seen Idalia Heal worse injuries. Remember the unicorn colt? Just look at me and keep breathing. Let the potion do its work."

Kellen took a deep breath. Anger was a tool of the Knight-Mage, but panic was his enemy. He wasn't going to panic. He concentrated on Shalkan.

As if from a great distance, he heard Idalia's voice:

"Will anyone here share in the price of this Healing?"

"I will," he heard Andoreniel say. "For what Kellen has done for my city, I stand in his debt forever."

"And I," Morusil added. "It is a small repayment for the refreshment Kellen has brought to my garden, and the saving of the forest."

"And I-"

"And I-"

In a few moments, all the Elves who had remained behind had pledged themselves to share in the Price of Kellen's Healing.

#

That will make things easier, Idalia thought absently. She reached out with her small knife and cut a few strands of Kellen's hair, then a few of her own.

Bless the boy, he didn't even notice. He was staring into Shalkan's eyes as if he'd found his one true love, breathing slowly and deeply, doing all he could to aid her in her spell. For a moment there, when he'd first seen his hands, she'd thought she was going to have to waste valuable energy putting him into Sleep, but he'd pulled out of his panic admirably.

Morusil had already gathered strands of hair from everyone else there. She added her own and Kellen's hairs to the bundle, then pricked the ball of her thumb with her knife, and squeezed out a drop of her own blood, holding the now-bloody bundle of hairs under her hand so that the drop of blood fell on it and bound them all together.

Power flared up in the yellow pavilion, encircling them all and settling into a dome of protection. Once it had steadied, Idalia tossed the hair and the herbs necessary to her spell into the brazier that Morusil had also prepared, and whispered her spell.

Normally she would not need to do so much work to prepare a Healing. But Kellen was very badly injured. And Idalia was already laboring under the shadow of an unpaid Mageprice, incurred when she had cast the spell to bring the rains safely to Sentarshadeen. Though Andoreniel, Morusil, and the others would bear much of the cost of Kellen's healing, there was always Magedebt to be paid: this was the law of the Wild Magic.

The weight of the Presence filled her, and she waited to hear the Price. But instead, a voice seemed to speak within her: you have already paid your price in full.

No! Her denial was automatic. There was no magic without a cost - that was the first and most basic tenet of the Wild Magic. What price she had paid was for gifts she had already received, not for this.

But Kellen needed healing, and it would be foolishness to argue with the Presence. I accept, she said, and felt the Presence depart, just as if she had accepted a normal geas.

Green fire filled her hands, as thick and rich as wild honey. She tilted her hands and it spilled over, splashing onto Kellen's hands and clinging, and where it touched, ruined flesh began to heal and re-knit as if it had never been burned. Once that damage had been repaired, the green fire spread - up Kellen's arms, across his torso, down his legs - repairing all the lesser damage he'd sustained at the Barrier.

In moments the Healing was over. After a moment, Idalia dismissed the sphere of protection. She got stiffly to her feet.

At least she felt just as tired as if this had been a normal Healing, and judging from the faces of the Elves, they all felt the same.

Kellen met her eyes, his expression dazed and unfocused with exhaustion. He looked down at his hands, his eyes opening wide in delight and wonder at the sight of his hands whole and unmarred. He opened his hands wide, and then closed them into fists.

"They're all right," he said, his voice blurry with the aftereffects of the potion. "They're all right!"

"Of course they are," Idalia said, with an assurance she hadn't felt until that moment, and with affection and love flowing over into her voice. "And now we'll go home."

"I'll help," Shalkan said. "I'm not sure Kellen remembers where it is. And even if he does, I'm not sure he could get there without deciding to lie down on the path for a nap. Which would severely inconvenience anyone else who needed to walk there."

Kellen grinned tiredly, but did not contradict his friend.

Idalia brought Kellen's cloak, then Kellen swung his leg over Shalkan's bare back, and the three of them made their way to the small house Kellen shared with Idalia. Morusil accompanied them for part of the distance, until his path diverged from their own.

No one seemed to take any particular notice of them. Elves were tactful in that way.

#

"Here we are."

Kellen was nearly asleep by the time they reached their door. He blinked at it in surprise.

Everything looked different - familiar and strange at the same time. While he'd been gone, Sentarshadeen had taken on something of the aspect of a dreamworld in his mind; something too good to be true. But here it was again, as real as the rocks in the road. He took a deep breath and swung his leg over Shalkan's back.

"I'll see you later," Shalkan said. "Get some sleep." When the unicorn was sure he was steady on his feet, it turned neatly on the path before the door and trotted delicately away.

Idalia opened the door, and Kellen hurried to get in out of the rain.

"Rain. It's been raining since we started back. It's raining now. Doesn't it ever stop?" he asked, yawning as he walked inside. Everything was just as he'd left it, with the addition of a cloak-tree and drip-pan just inside the door. Kellen hung his sodden cloak on the highest peg, stretching and yawning again.

"Eventually," Idalia promised. "Normally I'd suggest a hot bath before bed, but frankly, I don't think you'll stay awake through it - and I'd hate for you to drown after all my hard work. Why don't you get out of those damp leathers and into your nice dry bed? You'll need to sleep off that Healing. And then we can talk."

Kellen nodded, heading toward his room. Bed! His own bed! And it would be dry, and warm, and he would not have to drag himself out of it at first light for sword-practice, or another long day in the saddle....

With a mumbled thanks to Idalia, he slid back the door and walked inside.

The bed was turned down and waiting for him. Everything had been changed to autumn colors; there was a new bed-robe laid out, and - Kellen grinned to himself - towels as well. He sat down on the bench beneath the window and pulled off his clothes, toweling himself thoroughly dry afterward.

Even in the exhaustion that was the aftermath of the Healing spell, every time he used his hands he felt an enormous pang of relief. Just to pick something up, to close his hands, to look down and see, not numb bandage-covered lumps, but ten healthy responsive pink fingers was almost enough to rouse him to wakefulness again - almost. He'd lived with the fear for so long, that - because of the way they'd been burned, by magic - there'd be nothing Idalia would be able to do to Heal him. He hadn't said anything to the others, though he suspected that Shalkan had guessed.

But now that was all over. He was fine. Better than fine. Healed.

Time to move on to the next crisis, Kellen told himself, stumbling toward the bed.

He was asleep before he'd pulled the covers up over himself.


Purchase To Light a Candle, book two of the Obsidian Mountain trilogy, at your local independent bookstore.

Copyright © 2005 by Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory. All rights reserved.